Published: February 15, 2011
If you think of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867‱959) merely as a man of his time and place, think again. His influence on Twenty-First Century organic architecture is so pervasive that it is the focus of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibit celebrating the centennial of Taliesin, Wright’s personal masterpiece in Spring Green, Wis., that served as his home, studio and school.
The underlying theme of the show †”Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the Twenty-First Century” †said chief curator Brady Roberts, is “to look at what we’ve missed.”
A total of 150 items, including scale models and furniture, photography, video footage of Wright and rare drawings, allow viewers to reexamine Wright’s career triumphs. In the context of their time, they are revolutionary. In light of current environmental concerns, they are astonishingly relevant.
To Twenty-First Century architects, organic architecture is about sustainability. It is a combination of design and construction that integrates with its surroundings to become part of a unified, interrelated composition. It relies on ingenious use of indigenous materials for cost savings.
Unfurl the blueprints of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest architect” and the origin of these precepts emerges. The bones of the Prairie House were inspired by the flat, expansive landscape of the American Midwest. It has “…gently sloping roofs, quiet skylines, low terraces and out-reaching walls sequestering private gardens.”
The Frederick C. Robie House on the University of Chicago campus is arguably the apotheosis of Prairie style. Its long bands of “light screens” blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Its interior radiates from a central fireplace. Even the furnishings are an integral part of the plan, in keeping with the designer’s point of view that “form and function are one.”
Although Wright did not specifically call his work Modernist, it is clear that it embodies elements of International Style. This is evident in a modular desk and daybed combination designed for the 1911 Edward P. Irving residence by George Mann Niedecken, an architect working for Wright.
During the same period, the Wright-designed Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., became the laboratory for germinating the concept of top-lit interior space surrounded by galleries. Fifty years later, Wright used it in the design for his final opus, New York City’s Guggenheim Museum.
Anyone familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright is also familiar with the gaps in his career. The first occurred around 1910 and was riddled by scandal. When Wright returned to Illinois after a tour of Europe, he began work on Taliesin.
Speaking organically, Taliesin resonated with the precepts of good design. It was constructed of locally quarried limestone and sandstone. Its windows offer spectacular views that blur the lines between interior and exterior. They also provide abundant light, which is tamed by the overhanging roof. Despite the summer’s sun, the house remains cool.
Beyond that, Taliesin is so much in harmony with the countryside that its chimneys evoke nearby geological outcroppings. The windows frame vistas of the countryside to the east and an intimate garden to the west. In keeping with Wright’s belief that farms were integral to the home and workplace, the agricultural wing included stables, a dairy and hayloft.
Had it ended there, Taliesin would still have been brilliant. But the house was damaged by two fires and restored after each. In 1932, Wright converted the agricultural wing into living quarters for apprentices of the Taliesin Fellowship. He later used the house as a guinea pig, making changes on it to bear out his design theories. He even added a second story in 1943.
It was here that Wright designed Fallingwater in 1935, the groundbreaking Bear Run, Penn., home of Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann Sr built the following year, and the Johnson Wax Administration Building, constructed in Racine, Wis., 1936‱939.
Taliesin is Wright’s autobiography in wood, stone and glass. It includes three major complexes covering 75,000 square feet. The 600-acre site is one of Wright’s largest landscape projects.
At the height of the Depression, Wright ventured into the arena of affordable housing with a design he called Usonian.
Usonian structures were small, one-story affairs set on concrete slabs with piping for radiant heating running through the concrete. The kitchens were incorporated into the living areas and carports replaced garages.
In the 1950s, Wright revisited the concept and extruded a cheaper version made of three-inch concrete blocks secured with steel rods and grout. This he called Usonian Automatic.
Derived from the Prairie House, Usonian has low roofs, symmetrical rows of windows and an open interior. Designed to be repeatable, Usonian was one more step toward sustainability. More than 100 were built, including the First Herbert Jacobs House, 1936, in Madison, Wis., and the Toufic L. Kalil House, 1955, in Manchester N.H.
Usonian was the basis of future affordable living projects, one of which is a highlight of the Milwaukee exhibit. It is The Living City, a 1958 plan for community living in the modern age that originated in 1930.
Wright was born in the horse-and-buggy age and lived to see the Nuclear Age. The journey gave him early pause to believe that big cities were “no longer modern.” He deemed the psychology of urban life as detrimental to mental health as urban economics are to its physical health. Wright conceived a workable alternative called Broadacre City.
The Broadacre City project begins with a partially prefabricated single-family house. It uses standardized elements and is, ideally, a do-it-yourself project. The house can grow organically, as needed. It is built on an acre of land, hence the name Broadacre.
The workplaces in Broadacre City are set close to farms †perfect for today’s locavores. There are no crowded malls, just roadside markets at intersections. Despite its sprawling landscape, there is no room for experts. Everyone does everything †farm, indulge their artistic bent and work. This is individualism given over to the good of the community. It is the Arts and Crafts Movement updated.
In 1932, Wright expressed his views about the future of the metropolis in the book The Disappearing City. He spoke of his vision as “a future for individuality in this organic sense: individuality being a fine integrity of the human race…”
Over the years, the explosion of technology, even some science fiction themes, drove the plasticity of Broadacre City. The challenge became how to retain a connection with nature and landscape and technology.
The solution was the culmination of his career, The Living City, the name of which was also published as a book in 1958.
According to Brady Roberts, this advance in architecture integrates nature, affordable homes, enlightened workspaces, parking and other aspects of daily life into a repeatable model.
The Living City was never realized. It serves now to stoke animated discussions among architects charged with expanding the notion of organic architecture to meet the demands of the planet.
One of the highlights of the Milwaukee show is the original, 12-by-12-foot model. For the first time, it will be on display side-by-side with a more recent German construction. Given the fragility of the original, it is likely to be the last display of the piece.
Much to the credit of the exhibit’s organizers, “Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the Twenty-First Century” takes every opportunity to bring viewers up close with Frank Lloyd Wright. Archival 16mm footage captures him as he appreciated nature and farming at Taliesin.
A video installation of monumental proportions allows viewers to experience Wright’s masterworks. Fallingwater, for instance, is immortalized through four seasons. More than 30 rare drawings from nearly every Wright project are on public display for the first time. Digital slideshows document built projects.
Lectures further the understanding of Wright’s legacy. Tours of Taliesin with curatorial explanation round out an exhibit that is as close to having a consultation with the architect as is possible.
The exhibition, on view through May 15, is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in conjunction with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Ariz.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is at 700 North Art Museum Drive. For information, www.mam.org or 414-224-3200.
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